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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Spirit of Nationalism J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735-1813)

[1889] Paul Revere, The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in Kings Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt. (1770), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4600].

Although his writings evince a reverence for pastoral, quiet farm life, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur led a restless existence marred by war, instability, and tragedy. Born in France to a privileged family, Crèvecoeur left for England as a young man and eventually traveled on to Canada. He worked as a surveyor in the French army during the French and Indian War and was wounded at the battle of Quebec. In 1759, Crèvecoeur immigrated to rural New York, where he found employment as a surveyor, trader, and farmer. He married an American woman and became a naturalized citizen, adding the names “Hector” and “St. John” to his given name, perhaps in an attempt to seem more English. The outbreak of the American Revolution marred Crèvecoeur’s idyllic farm life. Suspected of harboring Loyalist sympathies, he was persecuted and threatened by his neighbors. He tried to sail for France to escape harassment and to secure his children’s inheritance, but both the English authorities and the Revolutionaries found him suspicious and made his departure difficult. After being imprisoned by the English, he was finally allowed to leave for France in 1780.

Once he had arrived safely in Europe, Crèvecoeur published a manuscript he had produced while in America. His book, Letters from an American Farmer(1782), was an account of rural life and travels through America told in the voice of a naive, rustic narrator. These letters of “Farmer James” became popular in France and England and, trading on the book’s success, Crèvecoeur became a minor celebrity. He was appointed a French consul to America and returned to New York in 1783. Tragically, he found his farm destroyed, his wife dead, and his children resettled in Boston. In 1790 he returned to France, where revolution and war once again tormented him. He lived obscurely in rural France until his death.

Although Letters from an American Farmer was initially read as a celebration of American culture and the American character, later generations of literary critics have puzzled over the exact nature of Crèvecoeur’s attitude toward his adopted country. While his description of northern farm life is in some ways idyllic, later letters in the book engage the horrors of slaveholding in the South, the barbarity of the unsettled wilderness, and the terrors of revolution. A complex and ambivalent representation of American life, Letters from an American Farmer continues to challenge readers with its portrait of both the utopian and the dystopian possibilities of the nation.

Teaching Tips

  • Students tend to assume that the book’s narrator, James, corresponds to Crèvecoeur himself and that Letters from an American Farmer is an essentially autobiographical work. Be sure to make it clear to your class that James is an invented persona, and that Crèvecoeur sometimes uses the distance between himself and his narrator to produce ironic effects. You might focus on the horrific description of James’s encounter with the tortured slave in Letter IX to make this point. How does the narrator react to the spectacle of the dying slave in the cage? Why doesn’t he take any action to help the man? What are we to make of the line informing us that the narrator “mustered strength enough to walk away”? How does he interact with the owners of the slave when he eats dinner with them later that evening?
  • Letters from an American Farmer does not fall easily into a particular genre; it has been read as a travel narrative, an epistolary novel, an autobiography, a work of natural history, and a satire. To explore this question of genre and audience, ask students to imagine that they are Crèvecoeur’s publisher and are responsible for marketing his book to eighteenth-century readers. Ask them to think about how they would describe and promote the book, and what readers they would hope to reach. Would the book be more interesting to Europeans or to Americans? How would they summarize the book for marketing purposes? Where would they shelve the book in a bookstore?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What kinds of problems does Crèvecoeur’s narrator face in Letter XII, “Distresses of a Frontier Man”? How does this letter compare to the narrator’s earlier descriptions of his life in America? What has caused the change in his tone?
  2. Context: What answers does Crèvecoeur offer to the question he poses in the title of Letter III, “What Is an American”? What economic, social, religious, and racial qualities characterize an American in Crèvecoeur’s view? How does his description of the American character compare to those offered by other authors in Unit 4 (Tyler, Franklin, or Emerson, for example)?
  3. Context: How does Crèvecoeur describe Native Americans in Letters from an American Farmer? How do they fit into his ideas about who should be considered a true American? Why does his narrator contemplate living among the Indians in Letter XII? How does Crèvecoeur’s description of Native American life compare to William Apess’s account?
  4. Exploration: For a text written before the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement, Letter IX contains an unusually graphic description of the shocking and terrifying abuses committed under the slave system. Why does Crèvecoeur include this description? What are readers supposed to make of his narrator’s rather apathetic response to the horrible scene he encounters? How does Crèvecoeur’s portrait of slavery compare to later, nineteenth-century accounts of slave abuse (texts by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, or Harriet Beecher Stowe might make good comparisons)?

Selected Archive Items

[1209William Bradford, Title page for The American Magazine and Monthly Chronicle for the British Colonies, Vol. 1, No. VI, for March 1758,
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-5309].
Title page illustration for the American Magazine showing a Frenchman and an Englishman competing for the loyalty of a native man standing between them, leaning on a rifle. Crèvecoeur worked as a surveyor in the French and Indian War.

[1889Paul Revere, The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in Kings Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt. (1770),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4600].
Paul Revere, silversmith and political figure of the American Revolution, depicted the “arbitrary” murder of civilians by British troops in what would be called the Boston Massacre, a rallying point against the King’s military presence in the colonies.

[2622Junius Brutus Stearns, Life of George Washington–the Farmer (1853),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-723].
Like Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, this painting of George Washington standing with other white farmers while slaves work presents a contrast between bucolic farm life and the injustices of slavery.

[2642John Heaten, Van Bergen Overmantel (c. 1730-45),
courtesy of the New York State Historical Association.
This vibrant depiction of colonial life in New York emphasizes the area’s Dutch roots. Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer was in part inspired by time spent in areas like the one shown here.

[7243Currier & Ives, Washington’s Head-Quarters 1780: At Newburgh, on the Hudson (1856),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-3161].
Painting of stone farmhouse and bucolic surroundings alongside the Hudson River. General George Washington, his wife, officers, slaves, and servants occupied the modest house during the Revolutionary War. Crèvecoeures Letters from an American Farmer explores the pastoral lifestyle of such early Americans.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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